Elder: A Plant of Medicine and Magic
Elder is a plant that has a special spirit. As its blooms begin to present themselves in spring, the Elder merrily waves in the breeze, topped by its poofs of creamy flowers. Experiencing it up close, one can sense its strong ancient wisdom, yet there is also a playful lightness to it. Maybe it is the scent of its leaves or the slightly intoxicating smell of its flowers, but one can certainly tap into the magic of this plant if they wish…
I absolutely love when late spring comes and its time to harvest the Elder. Because the dozens of tiny flowers form a large umbel often the size of a dinner plate, I can never resist the urge to bury my face in the flowers, immersing myself in their perfume and dusting my nose and cheeks with the pollen. Even the memories of harvesting send me into a dreamy state.
Here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California, we have two species: Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus mexicana. S. canadensis has black berries in the late summer and S. mexicana has a berry that is a beautiful blue color. Both species are medicinal. Another Elder species is Sambucus racemosa, or Red Elderberry, which is considered toxic and should not be used. Always make sure you have positive identification before harvesting plants for medicine! If you are not familiar with plant identification methods, then wait for the assistance of someone who can help. It is not worth the risk.
Elder has had a strong presence throughout history. It is referenced many times in fairy tales and the plays of Shakespeare, is thought by many to be the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, and has long been the center of many sources of magic and power.
Sambucus comes from the Latin word Sambuca which is the name for a Pan flute – the hollowed stems of the Elder were used to make instruments such as this. In Dutch and English traditions, the spirit of the ‘Elder Mother’ was known as Hyldemor. Before taking any wood from an Elder tree, one had to first ask Hyldemor for permission; otherwise ill luck would befall the taker in their future… In other traditions, falling asleep under an Elder tree, especially during times such as Beltane, was said to put one at risk of being taken away to the land of Faerie…
Elder has also been a key player in the modern history of herbal medicine.
It has long been considered the perfect herb to use when a cold or the flu begins to set in. It is a remedy that specifically targets upper respiratory issues, such as can be present with colds, the flu, or a sinus irritation. The plant helps move any congestion and relieves inflammation and infection. Elder flowers are considered diaphoretic; a cup of Elder tea can induce sweating. For colds and flu, I like to combine it with yarrow, boneset, and peppermint.
The berries are also an ideal cold and flu remedy and preventative. The juice of the elderberry has been shown to prevent replication of viruses in the body and reduce the length of time the body is affected by the illness. Therefore, taking elderberry as a preventative can reduce the chances of viral infection and reduce the duration of any viral invasion the body.
The elder leaves are less known for their uses and not typically administered internally, but make a great poultice or salve for muscle and skin traumas such as sprains, bruises and wounds.
Fal AM, Conrad F, Schönknecht K, Sievers H, Pawińska A. Antiviral activity of the “Virus Blocking Factor” (VBF) derived i.a. from Pelargonium extract and Sambucus juice against different human-pathogenic cold viruses in vitro. Wiad Lek. 2016;69(3 pt 2):499-511.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine
Krawitz C1, Mraheil MA, Stein M, Imirzalioglu C, Domann E, Pleschka S, Hain T. Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses.BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Feb 25;11:16. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-16.
About Amy Branum
Amy Branum offers herbal and Ayurvedic wellness consultations and is leading the Grassroots Herbalism and Community Herbalism courses taught at the Wild Temple School of Yoga and Herbal Wisdom.